The morel mystique

Residents throughout the region go wild in search of this Hoosier mushroom.


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Once March rolls around, the world slowly wakes up from the many frigid winter months longing to spend time outdoors. With nature blossoming and wildlife flourishing, a small fungi begins popping up in forests, along roadsides and occasionally in front yards.

Yellow Morels

The porous caps of morels distinguish them from other species of mushrooms. / Photo by Holly Grier

Warmer temperatures and damp soil make the region a prime spot for morel mushrooms to grow, and morel madness sweeps across the Midwest in the spring. Grown men take days off work to search for morels, neighbors trespass on each other’s land, and first-find bragging stories grow into territorial battles.

“I’ve got certain spots I go to,” says Ed McGuire, a seasoned mushroom hunter from Salem. “It’s kind of trick too, because if you tell somebody your spot, there’ll be two or three cars there next time you go.”

Mushroom hunters abound in Southern Indiana, from first-year rookies eager to stumble on a fabled morel patch to seasoned veterans who would sooner blindfold their own children than reveal a hidden mushroom grove.

These wrinkly mushrooms with their porous sponge-like caps and tan stalks are a top commodity from mid-April to mid-May. Nostalgic stories surround the elusive morel, only adding to the fascination with the savory fungi. So keep an eye on the dogwoods, check for damp soil and watch the calendar–it’s time for the great mushroom hunt.

Where to find them

You can ask where you should look, but don’t expect to get a straight answer. Mushroom hunters are notoriously territorial when it comes to their morel patches. The key to the search is being able to identify the environment that would be most suitable for morel growth. Here are veteran tips for the novice mushroomer ready to grab a pillowcase and head out to the woods for some old-fashioned mushroom hunting.

Know what you’re looking for

Seems basic, but the Department of Natural Resources lists 11 common varieties of wild mushrooms in Indiana. Distinguishing the various fungi is more than a flavor preference, it’s the difference between a tasty snack and a trip to the hospital (see sidebar).

There are two types of edible morels in the 812 region, the yellow and black varieties, according to John and Theresa Maybrier in their book Morel Hunting. The stalk is white to grayish and hollow when sliced open. The caps of both yellow and black morels look spongy or honeycomb-like, and the mushroom is generally three to five inches tall.

For many hunters, though, bigger is better. The Spencer Evening World newspaper holds an annual contest for the largest morel found and awards the winner with $100. This past year the largest morel weighed in at 21.5 ounces, 1.3 pounds of mushroom. The second place morel was 15 inches tall.

While morels can pop up in your neighbor’s front yard, generally you “just got to get out into the woods,” says Ron Kerner, an amateur mycologist who runs the website indianamushrooms.com. Kerner stresses the importance of learning how to identify trees using a tree guide manual or experienced friend. It’s essential, because dying elms produce large batches of yellow morels and ash trees black morels.

Kerner says one of his biggest thrills was finding a large number of morels when out in Hoosier National Forest on a rainy May morning. “I found 40 morels,” Kerner says. “Took me 15 years to find one of the fabled dead elm trees. I went back the next year and there were none. You just have to stick with it.”

Dr. Charles McCalla, a physician at Promptcare in Bloomington who takes days off work to search for morels during peak yellow season, suggests scouring low-lying areas along creeks for elms. While his tree of choice is the elm, he mentions that other tree hunters swear by include sycamores, ash and apple.

What to look for also depends on where you look—the DNR allows mushroom hunting in state parks and on reservoirs, reminding people to check with the resource management units about seasonal restrictions. Always ask permission from a landowner before hunting on private property or you could get into some sticky situations.

McCalla and a friend were searching for morels a couple years ago on what they thought was a section of public land in the Owen-Putnam State Forest. They parked their car along the road, went into the forest and found hundreds of morels. On their fourth trip to the “wonderful” spot, the pair realized a pistol-bearing man was storming toward them, looking “kind of sour.”

“It turned out that section of the forest was landlocked, and we had been crossing over his property every time we went,” McCalla says, laughing. “He was just livid, carrying on  and on. We tried to apologize, but he wanted none of it. At one point he finally said, ‘I ought to just take those ****ing mushrooms from you!’”

McCalla chuckles and continues, “We left, and it wasn’t ‘til we tried to pull out that we realized the air had been let out of our tires.”

Be patient and try, try, try again

Learning how to find morels takes time and dedication. You need to master not only morel identification but also recognizing environmental clues. And when you do have that stroke of luck and stumble on a decaying tree, don’t expect the morels to necessarily show up the following year.

“Every year I keep a calendar of where we go and how many we find,” says Suzanne Oliver of Linton. “Been doing that for about 10 years. I know the morels are ready when the dogwood trees start opening,”

Oliver mentions that the best indicator is the may apple, a white, flowering umbrella plant that appears in early spring, but you have to go really deep into the woods to see those. So she just watches the dogwoods instead.

Like any good mushroomer, Oliver protects the coordinates of her favorite hunting grounds. She has spots she’s permitted to be on, but has been kicked off property before while searching with her grandson, which she thinks scared him away from mushroom hunting.

Last spring, Oliver was exploring some backwoods areas she frequented years ago with a small deer trail. When she found the remnants of the path, fallen trees blocked the walkway, but she decided to continue. Oliver was rounding the first big hill as she realized the path was completely overgrown, leaving her no place for steady footing to maneuver around a small lake.

“All of the sudden I started sliding,” Oliver says, laughing. “I came up spitting black pond water. My grandson had a concerned look on his face and suggested that we go.”

“I looked at him and said, ‘We got this far, we’re not turning around.’ My shoes were sloshing with every step, and I wasn’t warm ‘til I got home and turned on the electric blanket. That’s the way it goes.”

Take someone with you who knows what they’re doing

If you can convince a seasoned veteran to let you tag along for the ride, you’ll learn more about the differences between good and bad mushrooms than you could reading any textbook.

You’ll also learn the tricks of the trade. For example, to pick a mushroom you should pinch the morel right at ground level, according to the Great Morel Mushroom Club. You can use a knife or a chain saw depending on how big the fungus is, but a simple pinch and twist will usually cut it right off.

Holly Grier trained her 2-year-old Labrador Bella to sniff out morels because Grier has trouble beating her boyfriend to the first one of the season. This past year, Bella found a large mushroom patch for Grier.

“Though she ate most of one large ‘shroom before I got to her,” Grier says, laughing.

Ed McGuire says that many mushroomers like to collect their morels in a pillowcase because the material lets spores escape through the threads of the sheet.

“The spores penetrate through your bag and they can regenerate for the next season,” McGuire said. “There are lots of little tricks that old-timers have like that.”

How to serve them

Black Morels

Black morels are the first to appear in April. / Photo by Holly Grier

Hopefully the long, tiresome search will result in a small harvest of morels. If not, don’t worry—local grocers (see sidebar) sell morels in the springtime, and area restaurants jump at the opportunity to include them in their seasonal recipes.

While the mushroom is delicious cooked on its own without much else, its savory flavor complements many main-course dishes. The morel has an earthy and almost nutty taste that, though subtle, will tantalize the taste buds.

Traditional Big Pot Risotto of Ramps, Morels and Peas

1lb. ramps (wild spring leeks); scallions or regular leeks may be used in place or ramps
2 T olive oil
1/2 c. shallots and onions, chopped
1 T garlic
1 lb. risotto
2 c. white wine
3 c. vegetable stock, warmed
1/2 lb. morels, cleaned, sautéed, and seasoned
2 c. peas, cook tender, 1/2 pureed, 1/2 whole
3 T butter
1/2 c. Parmesan
2 T thyme
2 tsp. lemon zest
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Wash ramps well and coarsely chop.  Heat oil and sweat white part of ramps (approximately 1/2 cup) in risotto pot.
  2. Add rice and stir, coating rice well, 2-3 minutes.  Add wine and cook, stirring until absorbed, 3 minutes. Begin adding stock, a cup at a time, until each addition is absorbed, 5-8 minutes between additions.
  3. When rice is three-quarters cooked, add the green portion of the ramps.  When rice is al dente, add remaining ingredients and season to taste.
    Note: Cook rice a little less if it is going to be reheated.
  4. Add pea puree and whole peas to hot risotto right away.

Recipe courtesy of Daniel Orr, Chef for FARMBloomington

Wild Morel Mushroom and Cheese Omlets

6 eggs
1 c morel mushrooms, sliced
1 Tbsp butter
1/4 c milk
1/2 tsp salt, pepper, garlic salt, cilantro, basil (or your favorite herbs, season to taste)
1 small onion, diced
1/2 c shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 c sour cream
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 oz cream cheese

  1. Crack eggs in a bowl and add milk, whisk until well blended.
  2. Add diced Velveeta cheese, mushrooms, onion, garlic, butter (dice the stick butter into small pieces or small dollops if using soft butter), sour cream, cream cheese & herbs and stir well.
  3. Heat olive oil in a skillet on medium high. Add omelet mix to the skillet and cook, stirring constantly, for 5-7 minutes (until the cheese has melted well). Once the dish starts to bubble, turn the heat down to medium and continue to stir (you don’t want the eggs and cheese to stick to the bottom of your skillet).
  4. Top with shredded cheddar cheese and serve with biscuits and jam and some fresh fruit on the side.
  5. (Optional) I like to add seasonal vegetables to my omelets as well; fresh green or yellow peppers, fresh garden herbs (cilantro and basil are my favorites), even diced squash or zucchini tastes good!

Recipe courtesy of Holly Grier, contributor to JustAPinch.com

Classic Fried Morels

Morels
3 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
1/2 cup flour

  1. Rinse them in water and pat dry.
  2. Heat up a frying pan or skillet and melt butter. Make sure the butter doesn’t burn.
  3. Place the flour on a dish and roll the morel pieces in it until they are completely coated.
  4. Drop the flour-covered morels into the heated pan with butter. Flip them over with a wooden spoon until all sides are brown and crispy.
  5. Eat them slowly, savoring the taste and taking time to ruminate on how wonderful it is to be alive. Or just scarf them down and whip up another batch!

Recipe courtesy of Suzanne Oliver, Linton

Why we love them

So just what is it that makes Southern Indiana wild about morels?

It’s not the only place morels grow in the United States—Science Daily says there are 177 related species across North America. Humans are the only ones who will eat them, according to a study by Oregon State University, though deer and wild turkey have been caught in the act. The 812 area, with its varied geographical landscape and many forests, has the best climate for the mushroom, warm and damp in the springtime.

For the hunters themselves, there’s the competition of seeing who can find the first, heaviest or tallest morel. Holly Grier of Underwood and her friends place a bet every time they go out in the woods, whether it’s free dinner for the one who finds the first mushroom of the day or added chores for the loser. They make it a sport to out-do each other.

“It’s almost like a treasure or scavenger hunt,” says Ed McGuire.

“My sister-in-law and her husband live in a cabin south of Paoli in a pretty wooded area,” he describes. “There was a guy in town, kind of a shady character who hung out at the bars all day, who dressed up in camo and snuck onto their land to try and steal their mushrooms.”

In addition to the thrill of the hunt, the childhood memories strike a chord in the hearts of dedicated souls. Suzanne Oliver, like many avid mushroom hunters, started going out when she was young.

“My dad always hunted mushrooms and I kind of followed around in his footsteps. I was about 6 my first time,” Oliver says.

She recalls one Sunday morning when her mom wanted her and her sister Sally to go to church but their father was going mushroom hunting. So the girls, in their Sunday dresses, ran after their father. After a while Sally started “crying and crying” as they climbed a steep hill their father had already summited. The girls stumbled up the incline and there, at the top of the hill, was a big yellow patch of morels.

“It was wonderful,” Oliver says, chuckling “And the dresses, well, they were tore up pretty good.”

The overriding attraction for Oliver and most mushroom hunters is a love for nature, though. They want to get out and explore the places less traveled, to find the hidden nooks of forests that hold heaps of morels.

“I love the peacefulness of the woods each spring as we hunt, sometimes for hours, to find a big batch of morels to cook up for supper,” says Grier.  “There is nothing that compares to walking through the woods and finding signs of life waking up from the long, cold winters we endure in this area.”

Mushroom hunters flourish in the thrill of the chase. When they’re out on the hunt, they’re tenacious. They don’t give up easily. That’s why we love the people who do it and what they embody, from the youngest grandchild apprentice to the expert with decades of experience and stories to share.

“If you haven never hunted or eaten morels, you’re missing out,” says McGuire. “They are quite tasty and the search is very rewarding—even if you don’t find a single one.”

Lifecycle of a ‘shroom

From Ron Kerner, operator of indianamushrooms.com: “Morels have a symbiotic relationship with trees, The real part of the fungus is underground where the mushrooms are doing their ‘eating,’ consuming organic matter. They attach themselves to the roots of the trees—this helps the trees absorb nutrients and water. In exchange, the mushroom gets nutrients from the trees, since they can’t do photosynthesis.

Fungi are more like people than plants in that they have to seek out their food, they can’t just stand there and make it. Fungi and tree need each other—when a tree starts to die, they have to go somewhere else and that’s when they make a big production of spores, which leads to the morel patches. It’s just to propagate the species.”

Finding the Fakes

Fungi are more like people than plants in that they have to seek out their food, they can’t just stand there and make it. Fungi and tree need each other—when a tree starts to die, they have to go somewhere else and that’s when they make a big production of spores, which leads to the morel patches. It’s just to propagate the species.”

True morels: cap is pitted inwards, covered in pits and ridges, uniformly shaped, directly attached to the stem. If you slice the mushroom lengthwise, inside is completely hollow.

False morels: Cap looks to bulge outwards, appears squashed, hangs freely off step. Slice it lengthwise, cap is barely attached at the very top of the stem and inside is filled with cottony fibers and chunks of tissue.

Facts from Mushroom-Appreciation.com

Where to buy morels:

Brown County IGA, 30 Hawthorne Drive  Nashville, 47448, (812) 988-4546

Double Oak Farm, 1120 Washington St., Columbus (812) 376-0775

Gnaw Mart, 4947 Indiana 46 and Brown Hill Rd, Nashville, 47448 (812) 988-8747

River City Food Co-Op, 116 Washington Avenue, Evansville, 47713, (812) 401-7301

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